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Waxy coating gives dragonflies an edge in a warming world

A new study by biologists at the University of Colorado reveals a surprising adaptation in dragonflies: a waxy coating that helps them thrive in hotter, drier environments. This finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on how some species might be better equipped to handle climate change than previously thought.

Researchers Michael Moore, Sarah Nalley, and Dalal Hamadah investigated the phenomenon of “pruinescence” – a waxy substance produced by certain dragonfly species and spread across their bodies. Prior research had established that this coating acts as a barrier, preventing moisture loss and overheating.

The study delves deeper, exploring the link between pruinescence and dragonfly courtship behavior. Interestingly, dragonflies have two main courtship strategies: perching and waiting. Perching males showcase themselves in well-lit areas, potentially leading to increased body temperature. In contrast, waiting males adopt a more mobile approach, flying around and taking hydration breaks.

The researchers observed a significant correlation – pruinescence was far more prevalent in perching dragonflies compared to their flying counterparts. This suggests that the waxy coating might offer a crucial advantage for the former group.

To assess the impact of pruinescence on dragonfly survival in a changing climate, the team analyzed a vast database containing geographic records of nearly 387,000 dragonflies, including information regarding their use of the waxy coat.

The analysis revealed a clear pattern: dragonflies employing pruinescence were significantly more abundant in hot and dry regions. Furthermore, a comparison over time showed that these “waxy” dragonflies were faring better than their non-waxy counterparts. This suggests a potential evolutionary benefit, allowing them to adapt and potentially thrive in a warming world.

This study challenges the traditional notion that specific behaviors might limit a species' ability to adapt to environmental changes. Instead, the findings indicate that certain behaviors, like perching and utilizing pruinescence, can act as advantageous adaptations in the face of climate change.

The researchers believe this discovery might hold wider implications. Similar adaptations, offering protection against rising temperatures and water scarcity, could be present in other insect species, potentially influencing their survival rates in a warming climate. This opens new avenues for further research into how various insect populations might be adapting to our evolving environment.